From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:
We’ve all heard (and many of us have asked) that dreaded question: “Lord, am I called to lifelong singleness?” This is usually followed by a protest. And it is sometimes followed by “How do I know?”
It’s good language, the language of call, when linked to either marriage or singleness. It reminds us that our social, familial, emotional, and sexual arrangements are not only about us—they are foremost about God, about the one doing the calling; and they are also about our community, the community that helps us discern and live out these callings. The language of call reminds us that the choice to marry, or to join a convent, or to stay single sans monastic vows, is about more than merely making a choice.
I once heard a pastor address the question, how do I know if I am called to lifelong singleness? His answer: if being single is not hard for you, if you are able to do it easily, then you might have a call to remain single forever. This is a reasonable word on discernment as far as it goes; we are generally called to the things God has gifted us in, and that gifting often translates into a certain ease and desire. Calls to professions or jobs offer a useful analogy: I am quite certain I am not called to be an architect, because spatial relations are impossible for me. If I were asked to read blueprints for a house, I would find no joy or ease. But many of us are called to things that we do not always find easy. I may be called to be a writer, at least right now, but I often find writing to be the hardest thing in the world. And ask most married people whether they think “gifting” equals “ease”—they may feel they have been called to be married, but not too many married couples will tell you marriage is easy. I think these burdens are part of the fall.
Perhaps we ought not fixate on the call to lifelong singleness. Some people, of course, are called to lifelong singleness, but more of us are called to singleness for a spell, if even a very long spell. Often, our task is to discern a call to singleness for right now, and that’s not so difficult. If you are single right now, you are called, right now, to be single—called to live single life as robustly, and gospel-conformingly, as you possibly can. The problem comes when the assumption that these are lifelong callings creeps in—panicked single folks think they must discern, at some given age or some given date, whether or not they are called to singleness forever. Again, consider our professional callings. We are often called to certain vocational or professional paths for periods of time—one is called to be a doctor or a teacher or a waitress, but to discern a call to go to dental school at age twenty-four is not to assume that one will be called to work as a dentist forever. Perhaps at thirty-five, one will be called to stay home with small children. Perhaps at forty, one will be called to open a stationary store. Perhaps at sixty-three, one will be called to retire. Indeed, even calls to marriage are often not lifelong—not because of divorce, but because of death. Jane may be called to be married to Peter right now, but if Peter dies, she will find herself called, for a season, to singleness—to widowhood.
Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov has stressed that discernment is always mysterious, tricky, careful work; we always see through a glass darkly. We should think of vocation as “an invitation, a call from the Friend. I accept it today in the contours of my present situation until the moment when I will perhaps see more clearly.” A single person contemplating his future, says Evdokimov, should accept the “open, though still undefined, horizons” that stretch out before him, and he should not let fear push him to “control the freedom of the spirit.” (This is wise advice, but I find it very hard to follow. I am a terminal J on the Myers-Briggs, so I love closure and plans. The open horizons and freedom of the spirit sometimes makes me very, very nervous.) “For the time being,” writes Evdokimov, the single person “accepts this situation cheerfully, with joy; he views it as a task limited to today, as the present and the full value of his life.”
This wisdom, I think, teaches us something about vocation and discernment in general—not just how to think about a call to singleness or a call to marriage, but how to think about a call to teach, or preach, or parent, or befriend. “One’s vocation is found exactly on the crest between necessity and creative freedom, along the line of faith, which reveals the direction as its free and strong confession grows,” says Evdokimov. “One’s entire vocation is an option, an answer to a call that has been heard. It can simply be the present condition. It is never a voice that clarifies everything. The dimness inherent in faith never leaves us. There is one thing we can be sure of, that every vocation is always accompanied by renunciation. One who is married renounced monastic heroism; a monk, the married life. The rich young man of the Gospel is not invited either to marry or to enter a monastery. He had to renounce his wealth, his ‘having’ his preferences, in order to follow the Lord . . . . However, in all cases of deprivation Scripture speaks of, grace offers a gift; out of a negative renunciation it creates a positive vocation.”